Friday 23 May 2014

Books for boys. Or girls. Or both?

The Secret Garden
Is it half term already? The last couple of weeks have flown by in a whirl of homework, sports days, swimming galas and vomiting bugs (the latter laying us all low for the past few days).

Blogging time seems in short supply, but I've been mulling a blog post for a while about books I'm reading with the boys. When I go into bookshops these days, I'm often struck by how the kids' books seem to be divided by gender. The "boys" books, all about superheroes and dragons and wars and monsters, as opposed to the "girls" books, with their slightly pinkish covers, all about friendships and school and ballet and horses.

Now I know that getting boys to read can be an issue; I've read countless articles about "books for boys", and how we must encourage them by feeding them with subject matter that interests them, etc. And maybe it has been ever thus; after all, I grew up loving Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, while my husband remembers devouring TinTin and Lord of the Rings (both of which my boys adore too). Clearly there have always been books that appeal, in general, to one sex more than another, just as with toys, however we much we don't like to admit it.

But my point is that we shouldn't rule out the books that we think our children won't enjoy. The boys have surprised me on several occasions. For example, I have read the Littleboys most of the the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, and for the most part they were riveted. Maybe they enjoyed different bits to me as a child -- instead of imagining Laura's Christmas hair ribbons and poplin dresses, they're more fascinated by how the family built their shanty -- but the point is, they're great stories.

The boys are also starting to love classics like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows which have a universal appeal -- don't rule these out for being too old-fashioned. They find A.A. Milne hilarious, and they're currently listening with fascination to the Wind in the Willows, despite the fact that the language is quite heavy going for today's kids.(A note: I tried to read these books to them when they were younger, without success. But it seems nine and seven is the perfect age).

What really surprised me this week was when, all of us recovering from said tummy bug, the boys and I sat down to watch a 1975 TV series of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. This was something that came free a few years ago with a newspaper, and I had found among our DVD collection, long-forgotten since we moved to the US. Having not read it since I was a child, I would have said on balance that this was a "girl's" book, but the boys loved watching this serial so much that, as the credits rolled for the last episode, Littleboy was heard to say incredulously: "That's it? There's no more?"

That the same boy who is currently enjoying Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters could be riveted  by the tale of Mary Lennox and her invalid cousin is a testament to the power of great writing. So, bookstores, don't be afraid to mix it up a bit -- and fellow parents, we should all remember that a good story is a good story, whether it contains monsters and zombies or gardens and foxcubs.

Monday 12 May 2014

A Magical Birthday at Hogwarts

Hanging around at 4 Privet Drive
Trying out some wand moves
Littleboy 1's birthday treat this year was to visit Hogwarts. And, for those of you who are thinking of going (I know Iota is), here's a little review (non-sponsored, I paid for it myself) to let you know how the Warner Bros. Studio Tour at Leavesden (near Watford) measured up.

First things first - you need to book online and well in advance. I booked six weeks ahead for a Saturday in May, and the only slot we could get was 5PM-8PM. However, this turned out to be fine - it wasn't absolutely mobbed, and when we turned up at 4.30, they seemed quite happy to let us in early.

Although I had heard nothing but good reports, I still wasn't quite sure what to expect. The Doctor and I are not generally big fans of theme parks, and tend to prefer the Great Outdoors to any indoor attraction, or anything (Disney, I'm looking at you here) where things are fake.

But we all love Harry Potter. I read all the books myself before having children, and I've recently read the first three aloud to the boys.  We did a marathon watching of all the films over Christmas so the boys were familiar with all the characters from beginning to end (which probably helps, because if you haven't seen all the films/read all the books, the tour does contain some spoilers).

So, when the curtain went up at the beginning of the tour (I won't say what's revealed, because it's such a surprise), I really was swept up in the magic. The one thing I hadn't expected was that I would enjoy it as much (if not more than) the children. This is partly because I am a huge movie buff - just the idea that we were on a film set was terribly exciting. Seeing the real costumes that actors like Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane actually wore was fascinating, as was seeing the real live sets (including the outdoor ones, such as 4 Privet Drive) and taking in all the information about how they were created. I began to feel quite regretful that I'd never pursued a career in film -- I think it's probably a bit late now...

What's good about the tour is that it is pitched for all ages. Children may not have the attention span to watch a five minute video about how a set was created, or marvel at the fact that someone sat down and actually painted all those portraits of the Headmasters of Hogwarts in Dumbledore's office. But they can try out doing wizard-y wand moves in front of a mirror, or riding a Quidditch broomstick against a green screen (afterwards you can purchase a DVD that makes you look as if you're flying over Hogwarts). Be warned though - even at 5PM there was a very long queue for the broomstick rides; we gave it a miss as there was so much else we wanted to do).

My highlights? Diagon Alley, the model Hogwarts Castle and the Hogwarts Great Hall. The creature workshop (where you can see how they made characters such as Dobby and Buckbeak come to life) is also really interesting.

Lowlights? The shop, which you can't avoid and in which everything is incredibly expensive. We had to spend ages persuading the boys not to spend their entire year's pocket money on a twenty five quid plastic broomstick (which we knew they'd only play with for five minutes).

If you want the newly nine-year-old's view -- Littleboy 1 says he liked Diagon Alley best of all."I was impressed how much they built of it," he tells me.  That's fair comment.

I'd  only add -- go when your children are nine or older. Really young children may not appreciate it all. The teenagers there seemed possibly the most excited - and that's fair enough,as Harry Potter is probably pitched more at their age than any other. But if you're really keen fans, and don't mind paying the ninety quid family ticket price, it's a bit like Disney; you could always go again.....

Tuesday 6 May 2014


I'm thinking of turning this blog into a craft blog and entering it for lots of awards. I expect to get lots of followers pinning my brilliant craft designs to Pinterest and tweeting excitedly about them -- because, y'know, I am just so fantastic at this kind of project.

No, not really,

But this may be the first and last time I post a craft project on my blog. Unless it really catches on.

So, here we go: How to make a fez: by the least crafty mother in Britain.

1.Buy red foam
2. Put foam around child's head and measure - cut hat shape to fit head
3. Use red card (not quite matching) to create a top for the hat
4. With help of seven year old, staple the pieces rather wonkily together
5. Get seven year old to decorate hat - the gold stars were his idea
6. Complain about lack of tassel to another mother at school gate. Very kindly she offers to give you one.
6. Sellotape tassel on
7. Turn up at school with said fez (which your seven year old is too embarrassed to wear). Note that the other fezzes range from the ultra-sophisticated (proper felt and all manner of decorations) to the really half-hearted (paper party hat in blue).
8. Realise that in determination not to forget fez, you have forgotten seven year old's piano books and failed to realise that he is supposed to be doing a gym display today.

Stay tuned for more creative projects on the Nappy Valley craft blog!